Judicial Review in Sports Governance

The article ‘Judicial Review in Sports Governance’ assesses the role and implications of judicial review within the realm of sports governance. The article aims to provide a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted relationship between judicial review and sports governance, emphasizing its implications for accountability, transparency, and the preservation of the integrity of sports.


Sports being an integral part of life, is taken as a matter of public interest by Indian courts. Sports play a dynamic role in refining the lives of people through mental as well as physical well-being and further societal relations.

Sport’s governing bodies exercise vast power, over the rights & welfare of players as well as the sports-loving public. Therefore, essentially these sport’s governing bodies should exercise their power equitably. The sport demands its governing bodies make decisions autonomously and speedily, keeping in mind the specific requirements of the respective sport.

Therefore, the question arises whether for the effective governance of sport, comprising the harmonizing of the interests of stakeholders, players, investors and spectators, should the decisions of sports bodies be subjected to judicial review.

Judicial Powers Regarding Sports Governing Bodies

Sporting bodies are generally private bodies, be they societies or companies, and their relations with individuals & other bodies are contractual. In India, Public remedies ( e.g., writs), can be pursued against public bodies, and, fundamental right can be enforced only by such bodies that qualifies as “State” defined under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution. Therefore one looking for public remedies against a sporting body has to prove that the sporting body is functionally/ structurally working as an “instrumentality of the State”. In England, attempts had been made to convince courts that sporting bodies carrying out public functions come under the state as the state is not defined under England’s Constitution.

The prima facie rule is no writ of certiorari can be issued against domestic tribunals since their authority derives solely from contract. [R v. Football Ass’n of Wales ex parte Flint Town United Football Club, [1991] QB 44 (Eng.)]

In Nagle v. Feilden, [1966] 2 QB 633, 635 (Eng.), Lord Denning M.R. held that safeguarding fair treatment is vital when a social club or monopolistic horse racing association disturbs an individual’s employment rights.

The verdict of the Court of Appeal (CA) in the case of Ex parte Aga Khan [R v. Disciplinary Comm. of the Jockey Club ex parte Aga Khan [1993] 1 WLR 909, 923 (Eng.)] denied the rationale in Nagle. The Court of Appeal stated that the Club’s functions were not governmental, although it seemed public. The court recognized its practical monopoly by stating that in Nagle, the Club being a private entity was subjected to contractual remedies but the court did not rule out judicial review when a petitioner absent a contractual relationship with the Club and left with no alternative remedy. They decided that the Panel’s functions were governmental, while the Club’s functions were not. Thus, regulation of sports was not seen as governmental.

However Indian courts have a different say on England’s prerogative writ rules [Shyam v. Nath, (2015) 5 SCC 423]. From Rajasthan Electricity Board v. Mohan Lal, (1967) 3 SCR 377 to Hasia v. Sehravardi, (1981) 2 SCR 79, brought tests for the determination of an entity as an “instrumentality of the State.” These tests included structural factors as well as Functional factors. However, the Apex Court eventually considered structural tests, by stating- that for an entity to be an instrumentality of the State it has to be under the control of the Government financially, functionally, and administratively. [Biswas v. Indian Inst. of Chem. Biology, (2002) 5 SCC 111]

But Sporting bodies are different from these electricity distribution boards or colleges. The association of team sports constitutes a natural monopoly, till governing bodies mandate exclusiveness from players. Therefore, a single governing body is required for the best players to not compete.

In Zee Telefilms Ltd. v. Union of India (AIR 2005 SC 2677), the issue was whether the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is “the State.” The Court held that BCCI is not a state because it did not meet structural tests despite BCCI’s being in a monopolistic position in the cricket body. But the Court had not ruled out the aspect of judicial review for verdicts given by sport’s governing bodies. Therefore, despite fundamental rights not enforceable under Article 32, the BCCI can still be subjected to judicial review by Article 226. The court acknowledged its act of public functions.

Legal Scrutiny of Sporting Bodies’ Decisions: Extent of Judicial Review

Article 226 of the Indian Constitution empowers High Courts to issue writs such as habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari. Additionally, this provision grants the courts authority over sporting bodies within its jurisdiction.

By Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court can issue the same writs, but wholly for implementing fundamental rights.

This authority covers the State as well as any person/authority. In the case of Shri Anandi Mukata Satguru (S.J.M.S. Trust) v. Rudani, (1989) 2 SCR 697, it was held that any person/authority under Article 226 would include any entity or individual fulfilling public duties. The courts must not interfere in the pronouncement of an expert body, tribunal, or a specially constituted body. [Verma v. Union of India, (1994) 1 SCR 700]

The Supreme Court though lacks competence in pronouncing decisions in specialized areas and such specialized bodies, states that the authority must act fairly and avoid any discriminatory practice. [Kraipak v. Union of India, (1969) 2 SCC 262]

The B.C.C.I. rules and regulations also work in consonance with the principles of natural justice by granting reasonable opportunity to be heard and be represented by an advocate. In Board of Control for Cricket in India v. Cricket Ass’n of Bihar (B.C.C.I. v. C.A.B.), the court heard a petition for the allegations of illegal betting and spot-fixing in the I.P.L. and selected its panel over the independent panel established by the B.C.C.I. The Supreme Court took the power of the B.C.C.I. to investigate and impose penalties against breaches and violations.

However again the loopholes come into the picture. It is hard to justify what allowed the Supreme Court to sit in review proceedings. The Supreme Court’s panel surpassed its terms of reference to give observations to amend the B.C.C.I. Rules, permitting administrators to own teams, posturing a conflict of interest. Though the Supreme Court did not announce the amendment as illegal, it was struck down, declaring that the B.C.C.I. performs public functions and adheres to the principles of natural justice. This way the SC furtively made fundamental right to be enforceable against B.C.C.I.

The Supreme Court also stated that natural justice cannot be repealed by the legislature, because the public policy is born out of the legislature and executive. [Premium Granites v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1994) 1 SCR 579]

The Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act, 2015 was brought in to implement the recommendations made in the 246th Law Commission Report which suggested “public policy” as a ground for nullifying an arbitral award u/s 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. Therefore, it needs to be answered how such restriction on scope would impact the scope of judicial review for decisions of sporting bodies. The Supreme Court did not elucidate the difference between fundamental policy under Indian law and that of morality and justice. Now the question is whether the team selection issue will be subjected to judicial review.

The court stated that the actions of the B.C.C.I. w.r.t. public law would be subjected to judicial review. [Mehra v. Union of India (2005) 4 CompLJ 268 Del] Since the selection of the national team was a public function, the guidelines which seem arbitrary like players from a particular state or community not ineligible for selection, shall be struck down. [Batra v. Union of India, ILR 4 (Del.) 280]. Therefore, the scope of judicial review with the courts is nearly unlimited w.r.t. the public functions performed by the sporting body.


In India, the Judicial review for cases of sporting bodies’ decisions encounters delays of the legal system, as understood in cases like Kirandeep v. Chandigarh Rowing Ass’n, 2004 AIR (P&H) 278, where despite favourable verdict, delays stopped athletes from getting timely relief. To address this issue, two solutions are brought in:

  • creating a specialized sports arbitral or a judicial tribunal
  • and improving the existing judicial review system by integrating principles made for sporting disputes.

Specialized Sports Arbitral or Judicial Tribunal

Timely bound verdicts are vital in sports disputes, especially during constant events where steadfastness may be required within 24 hours. The prevailing interim suspension system, as seen in the World Anti-Doping Agency (W.A.D.A.) Code has met criticism for not following the right to a fair hearing. Generally, Dispute resolution mechanisms under various governing bodies of sports in India, do not exhibit a great sense of independence. Despite arbitration being an ideal instrument for sports disputes because of its speed and expertise, the freedom of internal dispute resolution bodies w.r.t. sports is vital. The dispute resolution mechanisms meeting justice and freedom of sport’s governing bodies will aid in reducing litigation.

The arbitral mechanism decreases judicial insight, as courts refrain from interfering with the results of arbitrators, and setting them aside is seen in very limited cases. The National Sports Development Bill, of 2013 proposed the formation of the Sports Appellate Tribunal, which raised queries relating to its jurisdiction & influence on internal appeals as well as arbitral processes since it was unclear what cases could be heard by the tribunal. The Bill puts a bar on civil courts to admit any dispute over which the Tribunal will have jurisdiction, this included the High Court having original civil jurisdiction too.

The Tribunal’s prohibiting High Court may reduce public law remedies, but it remains to be seen how it will affect the steadfastness of sports disputes. Notwithstanding the exclusion, the Writ Jurisdiction of the High Courts cannot be completely restrained by statute, and their role can be inclined by the being of the Tribunal.

Enhancing the Role of Judiciary

As the National Sports Development Bill, 2013 did not become a law and challenges the composition of arbitrators for existing tribunals, possible resolutions within the agenda of judicial review must be considered. Courts, addressing sports disputes in an Ad Hoc means, have established a trend giving importance to the competent working of sports in terms of rights & obligations in sports agreements.

Cases like Indian Hockey Federation v. Union of India, Writ for Petition, No. 4978/2010 and Murugon v. Fencing Association of India, (1991) 1 SCR 658 highlight the court’s intervention by ordering fresh elections and permitting provisional decisions to ease sports governance. In the case of Carvalho v. Union of India, 2012 DLT 187 (Del.) 524, the High Court of Delhi represented as a mediator, seeing the player’s interests in making a living and endorsing a solution that adjusts the inconsistent rules of sporting bodies. Some judges had shown compassion and sensitivity to the exclusive facets of sports dispute resolution. But these results need to be recognized as precedents to guarantee uniformity for disputes arising in future.


By Article 12 of the Indian Constitution, sports governing bodies performing in India do not fall under “State” entities. But they are subjected to the writ jurisdiction of High Courts by Article 226 as they perform public functions, including selection of national teams and others. However, Judicial review, which covers team selection & other internal processes, is quite wide. Therefore, a division is vital between monopolistic & competing sporting bodies, and at the same time between sport’s governing bodies & private clubs and leagues. The former’s decisions are more often subjected to judicial review than the latter. For uniformity in decisions, a standing arbitral/ judicial tribunal was proposed in the National Sports Development Bill of 2013 but the bill has not yet become law, therefore refining the existing judicial review system is vital, to make judges more aware of sports’ unique necessities.


[1] Sports Administration in India, Available Here

[2] Sports Governance and Dispute Resolution in India, Available Here

[3] Amenability of Indian Domestic Sports Governing Bodies to Judicial Review, Available Here

[4] Governance of the Sports Bodies in India – A Critical Study, Available Here

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